If you’ve lived in Israel for some time now or follow the videos coming out of Israel’s military that circulate online, you’d be no stranger to those bright lights that illuminate the sky like Chinese sky lanterns. Yup, they’re pretty to look at, alright, but those aren’t lanterns. They’re actually Israel’s Iron Dome.

No, they’re not some Israeli fireworks. It’s one of Israel’s reliable air defense systems that can be comparable to the United States’ Phased Array Tracking Radar to Intercept on Target (PATRIOT) and Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) systems. Comparable and similar, but altogether serve different purposes.

With Israel always in a constant threat of missile and rocket attacks from the Palestinian Hamas and possibly even the Houthi rebels from Yemen, especially with their recent attacks on the United Arab Emirates (UAE), the system has served its country well, boasting about an 85% to 90% success rate in defending against incoming missiles.

That being said, let’s get into why the Israeli Iron Dome is one system to watch!

What Exactly Is It?

If you want to be technical about it, and I’m sure a lot of you do, the Iron Dome is a counter rocket, artillery, and mortar (C-RAM) or counter-RAM system that detects and destroys incoming rockets and the like before actually hitting their targets. Also known as the Kippat Barzel in its native country, it was specifically designed by Rafael Advanced Defense Systems and Israel Aerospace Industries to intercept short-range rockets and artillery shells with a range of about 44 miles.

An Iron Dome missile defense system fires an interceptor at a target during an exercise in early 2021 (Israel Defense Ministry via The Times of Israel). Source: https://www.timesofisrael.com/us-military-tests-iron-dome-in-guam-with-eyes-on-threats-from-china-report/
An Iron Dome missile defense system fires an interceptor at a target during an exercise in early 2021 (Israel Defense Ministry via The Times of Israel)

Initial conceptualization of the system came about when Hezbollah, a Lebanese Shia political and militant group, fired hundreds of unaimed rockets into Israel in the 1990s. Being one of the most powerful non-state actors in the world, Hezbollah does have robust military capabilities, as shown when it fired 4,000 Soviet Katyusha rockets into Haifa and surrounding cities in 2006. With the barrage killing several Israeli civilians and thousands of evacuations, they knew they had to develop a system to protect them against these short-range rockets.

As if that wasn’t enough, Hamas, a Palestinian Islamic militant group and its military wing, the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades, fired 4,000 rockets and 4,000 mortars into Israel from 2000 to 2008. This time the rockets were the simple Qassam rocket launched by BM-21 Grad launchers—basically, they had just launched these rockets to instill chaos as the Qassam rocket cannot be fired to a specific target, making them highly inaccurate and prone to malfunction. It’s the equivalent of throwing a dart with a blindfold. Only this time, it can actually hundreds of not thousands of people if it hit the right target like a packed soccer stadium or an outdoor concert.

In 2004, the idea for the Iron Dome had started catching on, with Brig. Gen. Daniel Gold heading the research and development team. By 2007, the system had been passed to Rafael Advanced Defense System so that they and the Israel Defense Forces could work together. It was officially operational in 2011, successfully intercepting a BM-21 Grad.

How Is It Different From Other Air Defense Systems

The Iron Dome has a relatively short range of about 44 miles, so it’s really designed to defend a small portion of land. Each dome is composed of three instruments, a battery, a radar, and a command and control system, with each battery having three launchers. These launchers can carry 20 interceptor missiles, so if you have three launchers per battery, that’s a total of 60 missiles per battery.

Israel has a relatively small landmass of 8,630 sq. miles. With multiple attacks coming in from the north and the south, it needs a quick air defense system with a large number of missiles. Otherwise, this suicide bomber like Qassam missiles can inflict damage to Israel’s population if 8,000 of them were released over the course of an attack.

That’s actually what makes this system special! It has a unique capability to determine whether an incoming rocket will hit an urban area. If it determines that it will hit an urban area with civilians, the Iron Dome intercepts it and destroys it before it can even come close. The idea is to destroy it at a point where it is less likely that a population might get hurt.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, David M. Friedman, the United States Ambassador to Israel, and Col. Thomas E. Moore, 174th Air Defense Artillery Brigade Commander, visit to the Terminal Altitude Area Defense System site in Israel on March 6, 2019. The deployment of a THAAD System to Israel is an exercise involving US Army, US Air Force, and Israeli forces under the Dynamic Force Employment concept. The exercise builds readiness and interoperability in the region, demonstrates the US capability to rapidly deploy air defense assets globally, and demonstrates US Army Europe’s mission to deter potential adversaries and support allies. (US Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Cory D. Payne/DVIDS)

Well then, how is it different from other missile defense systems? For starters, it isn’t actually a missile defense system. Israel also has those THAAD and PATRIOT systems for missile defense. However, in this case, the Iron Dome focuses on rockets, artillery, and mortars—those that have firepower but not as much as ballistic missiles.

If we were to put the difference in a gist, the Iron Dome has much of a shorter range when you compare it to THAAD, but much more comparable to PATRIOT.

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The Iron Dome has a range of 44 miles, while THAAD has 120 miles. That’s because the THAAD is made to intercept ballistic missiles (Terminal High Altitude Area Defense), so in theory, it wouldn’t work well with defending against rockets and artillery shells. In fact, it would be a waste of money if you were to use it on something like unguided rockets. The PATRIOT system has a similar range. However, it is also designed to intercept ballistic missiles and wouldn’t do well with low-flying rockets. If anything, Israel’s David’s Sling and Arrow concepts are perfect for intercepting ballistic missiles (possibly from Iran) if they were not to use their THAAD systems. It also gives Israel a layered defence system able to take several shots at diminishing ranges as the missile closes on the target.

Effective, Reliable, But Expensive

These groups attacking Israel have a tactic they use in an effort to make the Iron Dome obsolete, which they have failed to do since it has a success rate of 90%. Hamas tries to overwhelm the system by firing an insane amount of rockets, mortars, or artillery shells into Israel. It’s a primitive tactic, but you know what they say—if it is simple and it can possibly work, there’s no harm in trying!

Plus, Hamas wouldn’t lose so much in the process since Qassam rockets cost about $300 to $800 to build. In fact, Israel is shelling out about $50,000 to $100,000 for each interceptor missile. It’s outrageously expensive, but it is one hell of an air defense system to protect your citizens with, that’s for sure. The award-winning system is so good that the US bought two Iron Domes for the US Army, possibly to be placed in a similar environment where there is a relatively smaller area to cover.